In the 1980s, when I was Texas Ag commissioner, my staff and I proposed a comprehensive set of state rules to protect farmworkers, public health, our water supplies, and farmers themselves from the life-threatening consequences of toxic pesticides. But trying to enact these policies in Texas, a state that back then made and sprayed more agricultural poisons than any other, meant taking on the enormous money and power of the chemical lobby, as well as a hostile Republican governor and a legislature largely made up of corporate lapdogs. All of the above were howling furiously at us, snarling that the new protections we’d laid out were dead meat. When I told my legislative director that it seemed like the political odds were against us, his response was not a confidence booster: “Some of the evens are against us, too.”
As in that firefight, today’s Good Food forces (i.e., the grassroots people and groups across the country striving to build a sustainable, equitable agriCultural system) are under constant attack by the moneyed forces of agriBusiness that view food as nothing but another assembly line product to be fabricated by any means that fatten the corporate bottom line. We’re in an ongoing, momentous struggle (cultural, economic, political, and moral) over the very nature and future of food, and our best path to victory is to do as we did in Texas three decades ago: to forge coalitions of outsiders to confront and expose the self-enriching cabal of insiders. As a measure of how we’re faring, here’s The Lowdown’s latest State of the Plate issue.
Why fast-food wages stay so slow
Inequality doesn’t just come out of the blue; it’s created by decisions that elites make–usually behind closed doors, so those knocked down don’t know what (or who) hit them.
Take America’s 4 million fast-food workers, whose average pay hovers around a miserly $300 a week, before taxes.
With the labor market tightening, why don’t they just hop down the street to another franchise offering a better deal? Many try that, only to be rejected again and again, unaware that most fast-food chains have hidden into their contracts “no-hire agreements” that prohibit one franchisee from hiring another’s employees.
In a landmark study this year, two prominent labor economists at Princeton found that these secret bans on wage competition are used by more than 70,000 chain restaurants, including Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and (until this March) McDonald’s. By colluding to prevent millions of Americans from switching jobs to increase their incomes and opportunities, these giants have artificially kept the pay of fast-food workers and many other franchise employees stuck at poverty levels. That’s one place inequality comes from–and it’s un-American. A class-action lawsuit recently filed on behalf of thou-sands of McDonald’s workers asserts that it’s also illegal.
The essence and true value of real food
The agbiz interests that keep trying to stuff industrialized, plasticized meals down our throats face a huge hurdle: people. For most of us, food is not just fodder to get us through the day–it touches us emotionally, culturally … personally.
We see this special connection on happy occasions–birthdays, community festivals, and Thanksgiving holidays–but it’s often in the worst of times when our deep relationship to food reveals itself most powerfully. In August, for example, after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, the sure signs of people’s resilience came not only from the sound of power saws and nail guns, but also from the comforting aromas of barbeque wafting across a neighborhood, menudo served from a labor hall, or a big pot of shrimp gumbo simmering on a butane burner set up on a street corner and dished out free to anyone who needed or wanted some.
As Kim Severson, an excellent chronicler of food cultures, wrote about flooded-out Houstonians in the New York Times: “No matter what, cooks are going to cook.” After the hurricanes, the Bayou City was one huge wreck, with 134,000 homes in the 10-county area destroyed, damaged or swamped with muck and polluted water. “The emotional and cultural impact,” Severson wrote, “is most keenly felt at mealtimes. The kitchen is the heartbeat of a home, and by extension, of a community.” So despite the obstacles, Houstonians cooked–improvising with ice chests, hot plates, and crockpots–to create “kitchens” in second-floor bedrooms, outdoor decks, or any dry spots they could find. She wrote about 70-year-old Al Marcus. Four feet of bayou water destroyed his kitchen, yet only days later, he had fired up his backyard smoker and cooked 140 pounds of brisket to provide sustenance and a serving of normalcy to the family, neighbors, and volunteers who stripped soaked sheetrock from storm-damaged homes.
“What else am I going to do?” he asked.
That’s the true nature of food. Not just another consumer commodity, food is us–socially as well as biologically. I have no doubt industrialists can (and will) fabricate food-like substances from plastic, artificial flavors, additives, and advertising. But they can’t manufacture the human connectedness that springs from the real thing.
Hard times (still) in the fields
Every decade or so, America’s mass media are surprised to dis-cover that migrant farmworkers are still being miserably paid and despicably treated by the industry that profits from their labor. Stories run, the public is outraged (again), assorted officials pledge action, then … nothing.
Here we go again. Several news reports in recent months have documented the ongoing, shameful abuse of these hard-working, hard-traveling families. A Los Angeles Times report revealed that, even if they receive the hourly minimum wage, many farm laborers earn less than $17,500 a year because of the seasonal nature of their work. Moreover, they are often “housed” in shacks, old chicken coops, shipping containers, and squalid motels. Yet in my state, owing to the Texas Legislature’s cutbacks, the agency responsible for safe and sanitary migrant housing spent a grand total of $2,476 on inspections in 2015. The agency has imposed zero fines for housing violations since 2005. “As a result,” the Austin American-Statesman reported, “an estimated 9 in 10 Texas migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed housing that meets minimum health and safety standards required by state and federal law.”
This year, though, agribusiness interests from Florida to California are uniting in a push for new assistance–for themselves! While agribusiness PACs directed more money to Trump than to any other candidate, many in the industry are now expressing shock that he may actually intend to fulfill his campaign promise to cut off the flow of undocumented immigrants (who, they now admit, make up between half to 70 percent of the industry’s workforce). So they’ve rushed to Washington, frantically demanding a special exemption from their president’s planned lockout of Mexican laborers. In the process, they’ve suddenly recharacterized the very migrants they’ve been so callously mistreating as noble employees essential to the USA’s food security.
BigAg deserves no special break at all, of course, but if Trump and Congress give any help to them, at the very least they should be required to pay a living wage, provide decent family housing and health care, and treat all farmworkers with the respect due people who really are essential to our food security. To help push for basic human justice, connect with the United Farm Workers at ufw.org.
What’s in your breakfast bowl?
Mass marketers of breakfast cereals have been in a downward sales spiral for about a decade, so they’re getting back to their roots (sort of). Few folks know that some of the oldest and biggest brands of today’s artificially flavored, neon-colored, empty-calorie cereals started out as health foods, often springing from religious or utopian movements.
For instance, Ralston Purina’s Wheat Chex cereal was first packaged in 1937 under the name of Shredded Ralston, specially formulated for followers of Ralstonism. What was that? A strict, bizarre, racist cult with a demonic mission: to make America a nation of Caucasian purity. Webster Edgerly, the unhinged founder of Ralstonism, proposed an efficient means for achieving his pure- white dream world: castrate all males of “impure” lineages at birth.
The big manufacturers today aren’t going full-tilt Ralstonist to reclaim market share, but they are going back to pitching their products as health food, hoping to woo millennials who want cereals with more protein, fiber, and natural ingredients, and none of the artificial additives the industry has been dumping into its Choka-Mocha-Salted-Sugar Bombs. Some brands are seeking Good-For- Ya credibility by buying out organic brands such as Kashi (Kellogg’s) and Annie’s Homegrown (General Mills). But the sweeping shift of this $10-billion market to healthier alternatives is, in fact, an enormous, grassroots victory, driven by the organic movement, groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest, Good Food entrepreneurs, fearless nutritionists–and especially by countless moms, dads, and kids who simply refused to swallow the industry’s crap. Thank you!
Small brews are beating Bud
Last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev mounted a multimillion-dollar coup on America. Not on our country, but on its name. For six months, the beer behemoth expropriated our nation’s name for a tacky advertising campaign, rebranding its Budweiser product “America.” But the PR ploy backfired when a flurry of stinging media stories pointed out that Bud is owned by a Brazilian consortium based in Belgium.
Undeterred by facts, BigBud–still claiming to be red-white-and-blue-blooded American–announced that it has invested beaucoup bucks here to improve its beer quality. Mostly, though, that enhancement has come from buying out ten local craft breweries, such as Goose Island in Chicago, Karbach in Houston, and Wicked Weed in Asheville. AB InBev grabbed these top-quality, independent brew-makers because they represent the real beer of today’s America, rap-idly taking customers away from the giant purveyor of bland suds.
Indeed, its sales tell the tale of Bud’s beer bust: Last year the company sold 14.4 million barrels of Budweiser in the US, less than a third of its volume in 1988’s peak-suds year. Meanwhile, craft breweries are gaining market share–production of good beer was up 12 percent last year to 24.6 million barrels.
Getting off the pesticide treadmill
As his first official act as Trump’s EPA chief, friend-to-industry Scott Pruitt rejected a petition to ban Dow Chemical’s insecticide, chlorpyrifos. The neurotoxin’s well-documented and persistent dangers include stunting children’s brain development. But never mind: Dow contributed $1 million to The Donald’s inauguration festivities.
Meanwhile, after Monsanto’s herbicide, RoundUp, and their “RoundUp Ready” GMO seeds sparked a global plague of new superweeds, the company responded by apologizing. (Just kidding.) In fact, Monsanto is now rolling out yet another patented and pricey line of genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crop seeds that top weed scientists say will evolve even hardier weeds. And both scientists and farmers have also flagged a more urgent problem: The herbicide the company is pushing, dicamba, is volatile and drift-prone. Last summer, Midwestern farmers reported huge losses related to clouds of neighbors’ dicamba drifting over and killing their unpatented crops.
“You’re going to have to buy their [GMO seeds] because their chemical is drifting around,” one Missouri farmer told the New York Times. That’s quite a business model.
But there’s encouraging news, too: farmers, scientists, and consumers are fighting back, and global health agencies are responding to the threats. Thailand, Brazil, and Canada recently banned a range of toxic agrochemicals, and the European Parliament is reviewing RoundUp’s key ingredient, glyphosate, now found in 45% of Europe’s topsoil.
The Pesticide Action Network is a tremendous worldwide re-source for farmers and consumers alike looking for ways to fight for safe, sustainable alternatives. See: panna.org.
Back to the tomato future
Amazing. Food corporations and their academic associates keep trying to “make” an industrial tomato to rival Mother Nature’s prod- uct. And failing. While they have increased the supermarket tomato’s size, yield, and hardness (to withstand mechanical harvesting and cross-border shipping), they can’t get a handle on its flavor, which lies somewhere between cardboard and wet cotton balls.
Plant scientist Harry Klee has been a relentless Sisyphus in the at-tempt to manufacture taste, having tried to push corporate tomatoes up various flavor hills for years. First, he worked fruitlessly to make Monsanto’s genetically altered fruit somewhat tasty. For the past two decades, he’s worked at the University of Florida using molecular breeding techniques in efforts to transmit the delicious flavor com- pounds of heirloom tomatoes into the industrial product. But … uh-uh. Still at it, he now says, “I don’t like raw tomatoes very much at all. I’m kind of tired of them.”
Professor Klee might consider this: the Rutgers 250. It’s a revived version of the classic hybrid tomato developed in 1934 by Rutgers University and Campbell Soup plant breeders. Its excellent flavor and texture made the Rutgers variety the tomato of choice for years, eventually accounting for 60 percent of all tomatoes grown com-mercially in the US. But it fell out of favor in the 1960s when big industrial growers in California and Florida switched to hard (and tasteless) fruits that could withstand the crushing power of the ma-chines they’d begun using to harvest their crops.
The Rutgers variety soon disappeared from grocery bins and was forgotten … until 2009. That year–with the Good Food movement mushrooming into a mass market phenomenon, and with supermarkets suddenly demanding truly flavorful tomatoes–plant breeders discovered that Campbell still had genetic material from the parent plants used 75 years earlier to develop the original Rutgers variety. So for eight years, they’ve been working with it again, using cross-breeding techniques that go back to Latin America’s pre-Columbian natives. Slowly but surely, they brought back the Rutgers and its natural flavor, glowingly described as “the very taste of summer.”
Like its forbear, the resurrected Rutgers is not hard enough to be machine-harvested and shipped across country (or over oceans). And that, it turns out, is one its major virtues. The fact that this to-mato must be grown and marketed regionally will help decentralize and deindustrialize the food economy. Instead of trying to squeeze nature into a high-tech (and unsustainable) corporate model, this tomato represents a breakthrough in understanding that our commercial models can–and should–be structured in ways that cooperate with nature and foster the growth of regional economies.